Phooey, the FBI stays down in the dumps

Hey, FBI! You should see the Coast Guard headquarters. Completed in 2013, it’s long, low and beautiful, filled with natural light. It’s highly secure. Yet on a planned visit with Commandant Paul Zukunft, producer Eric White and I had an easier time getting in than we did getting out of the parking garage at the Government Accountability Office. Sharp! From the commandant’s dining room you’ve got one of the greatest D.C. views of the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers.

Alas, not everyone gets a stunning new edifice. Many years ago, I visited the EPA’s headquarters in Southwest D.C. My first impression was, “How can anyone work in such a dreary place?” Later, EPA moved to Federal Triangle, and developers rebuilt its crummy former buildings into schmaltzy apartments. EPA headquarters staff now occupies a couple of nearby buildings, one of which definitely shows its age. But it’s an improvement.

By the Coast Guard’s modern, low-slung building stands the shell of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital that — since late in the George W. Bush administration — was supposed to become the keystone in a unified Homeland Security headquarters. I saw construction workers poking around the brick walls. But right now, there’s little momentum for the project in the administration or on Capitol Hill. The potential costs are rising so fast, it’s looking more and more like a pipe dream. Homeland Security headquarters people will stay scattered throughout the D.C. area, with most in an old Navy campus hemmed in by narrow, fussy roads and far from Metro.

There, in three examples, you have the story of federal construction. A prosaic move from a dump to less-of-a-dump. A brand new showcase. And a project in perpetual limbo.

Although it had the detonation power to displace Trump family emails and Russia for a few minutes, the collapse of the FBI headquarters project really shouldn’t have been such a surprise.

It’s an old tale, but political intrigue forced construction of the Washington Monument itself to take 40 years. Fixing the stupid elevators will take three years, presuming that gets done by its expected 2019 deadline. I still find it amazing that constructing the Empire State Building took 14 months from start to opening.

Labor Department employees will toil in a dated, inefficient and — let’s be honest — homely building for a long time to come.  Former Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu tells me it has weak air conditioning. And rats. People there can sympathize with their FBI brethren. The General Services Administration had planned to offset the costs of both replacements basically by exchanging them with developers for a new site. Both plans are now down the toilet.

One wonders whether some sort of sanity or regulation will ever come to federal construction. Here the government wraps itself in internal bickering, so nothing happens after 10-year planning efforts and the expenditure of hundreds of millions by both the government and would-be bidders.

One solution might be lower-cost buildings. Estimates for the FBI new building reached $1.4 billion. You know in reality that would end up at $2.4 billion. That’s after the swap of the valuable 9th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. NW parcel and the cracked building on it.  Technically, the FBI or DHS could do nicely in a structure no more fanciful than a Home Depot.

I don’t recommend that. As citizens, even taxpayers, we want something more dignified and worthy of our public institutions. Just not a gilded lily.

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